Well it’s now official, Virginia has the screwiest winter weather anywhere. In just the past seven days, Franklin County has gone from a daytime high of 68 degrees to a frigid, windy high of 30. There is no packing away of seasonal clothing when you live here — you’ll eventually wear them all this winter.
If you need any further proof of this nonsensical weather, just take a look in your gardens. Bulb plants were breaking ground in the first week of January. That’s insane.
The more important question that many ask is whether or not it’s dangerous. Are the plants in any trouble when the winter temperature swings are this crazy? The answer to that is yes, no and maybe.
To fully understand all the variables to this, we need to be well-versed in photosynthesis, vernalization, eco-dormancy, endo-dormancy and plant desiccation. None of which am I well-versed in. So let’s just skip to some practical advice.
We’ll begin with the easy ones, your bulb plants: crocuses, hyacinths, daffodils, irises and the like. You can relax. These plants are used to handling crazy weather swings and are very resilient. If you are concerned you can always add a layer of winter mulch for protection, but generally they will be just fine.
If the warm weather swings continue, we may even begin to see tulips start to emerge. Again, the livelihood of the plants should be fine, worse case may be short-lived blooms this year. If they sprout and some hard cold is forecasted, it would be wise to cover your tulips with frost cloths or even a cardboard box will do.
If your bulb plants have a history of blooming too early regardless of the weather, you may want to check the depth of your bulbs. You can dig them up later this year and replant them to a more proper depth. Then always make sure you add a healthy mulch blanket to cover them each fall.
If you happen to have newly planted material in your gardens, keep an eye out for potential frost heave. We haven’t had really cold snaps yet, but if we do and it is followed by warm thaws and a cold snaps again, then susceptible plants can be pushed up out of the ground. Unprotected wet, frozen ground is one of the most common causes of death to garden plants in winter due to the havoc created from frost heave.
We can blame a lot of our garden headaches to the unusual weather. But we can also protect our gardens from much of these headaches with smart preventive garden management.
Water management is always a primary concern, and too many of us fail to prepare our gardens for winter in the fall. Plants should be thoroughly watered throughout the fall making sure the water penetrates deep enough to reach the root zone. This should be continued until the first hard frost appears.
Once the ground is frozen, apply a 3 to 4 inch layer of insulating mulch, such as bark mulch or pine straw, around the base of the plants. This helps insulate the soil so it stays frozen and helps prevent heaving.
Be careful with your timing of both pruning and fertilization. I generally believe that earlier is safer. I like to discontinue any fertilizing six weeks prior to frost and won’t do any heavy pruning after mid-summer. Doing either of these too late in the year can stimulate new growth and delay dormancy.
Oh, and if you have fruit trees, good luck. You almost need to be a magician of sorts to keep fruit trees thriving in our crazy Virginia weather. I hope you fare better than I ever did in trying to do so.
Here’s hoping our weather finds some normalcy and our gardens stay happy and healthy until the “real” spring arrives.